Feminism and the Environment in Brazil

by Jacqueline Pitanguy and Selene Herculano

Brazil has paid a high price for the development policies that transformed it, within four decades, from one of Latin America's poorest coffee-growing countries into one of the world's ten largest economies. Brazil today is plagued by massive debt, galloping inflation, stagnant economic growth and widening disparity between the rich and the poor. For example, the richest 20 percent of the population earn over 65 percent of the national income while the poorest 20 percent earn less than 3 percent. Furthermore, 2 percent of the country's farmers own over half the arable land and almost half the population lives below the poverty line.

The situation is worst in the impoverished and overpopulated Northeast (Nordesti), where deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution and overuse of fertilizers have deteriorated the environmental conditions and the quality of life of its inhabitants. The rapid growth of Brazilian cities and industries, especially in the Northeast, has spawned huge, overcrowded slums: shanty towns (favelas) plagued by inadequate water and sanitation, appalling urban pollution, disease, and the risk of landslides and other calamities triggered by environmental degradation.

Infant mortality is twice as high in Brazil as in China, despite a Gross National Product (GNP) seven times as high. Brazil's poor suffer most from its environmental woes, especially its poor women.

Women's participation in the labor force has grown rapidly, from 15 percent in 1950 to 39 percent by the beginning of 1900, according to the Brazilian Institute for Statistics and Geography. But women still earn 52 percent of what men do, are still barred from many jobs, still perform uncounted hours of domestic work, and take on additional income-earning tasks when they must. Women make up a large portion of Brazil's many "informal workers" who do not have access to professional cards or social security benefits.

Environmental and feminist issues have, for the most part, been dealt with by government and civil society as separate issues. Women in Brazil, however, have been concerned about environmental degradation and its effect on the quality of life for decades. This concern was not translated into political action of any importance until both the environmentalists and the feminists organized and gained political leverage.

Some significant leaders include Paula Frassineti Lins Duarte. Born to a poor black family, she is now the head of a very important environmental association in the Northeast. First a school teacher, she became a biologist, returning to her home in Permambuco. In 1978 she made contacts with other biologists who were very involved with environmental questions and founded APAN (Paraiba's Association of the Friends of Nature) along with another biologist. Paula teacher poor children that they have a right to quality of life; she also educates peasants on the risks of agrotoxics and their right to work in a health environment. APAN's advocacy work has succeeded in stopping a tourist development project which would have destroyed 370 hectares of legally protected sites. APAN has also achieved an article in the state Constitution which forbids high buildings at the seashore.

Environmentalism in Brazilian civil society

Despite some governmental codes in the early 1930s, for many decades environmental concerns in Brazil were mostly the expression of concerned citizens, first of conservationists and later of those who opposed the predatory development practices of the military regime that took power in 1964.

In the late 1960s, the defense of the rain forests against external exploitation became part of the agenda of the opposition to the military regime. In 1966 a campaign was launched by diverse groups of citizens who opposed the "internationalization" of Brazilian territory. Shortly after the National Campaign for the Defense and Development of Amazonia (CNDDA) was founded, other environmental groups were founded, among them the first women's environmental organizations, the Democratic Association of Gaucha Women (ADFG) in Rio Grande do Sul and the Gaucha Association to Protect Natural Environment (AGAPAN) which was founded by a woman.

The political amnesty granted in 1979 brought back many Brazilians who had been in exile in Europe, where they had been in contact with the Green Parties, who had in their platforms not only environmental, but also feminist issues. Since the early 1980s, environmental issues became a political issue and found a close ally in the feminist sector.

In 1986 the Brazilian Green Party was founded and developed its agenda in close connection with the Workers Party. This represented a new, modern labor consciousness and included a number of other questions, including women's rights, in their platforms. Also that year, a national coalition of environmental groups formed, the National Encounter of Autonomous Environmental Entities (ENEAAS). Since 1990, the environmental movement has shared with other Brazilian social movements (women, blacks, Indians, trade unionists, youth, rural workers, people caught by dams, etc.) the criticism to the model of development that Brazil adopted for four decades.

Feminism in Brazil

Feminism in Brazil as an organized social movement dates from 1975, when a seminar was organized in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of the United Nations during the period of military rule. From then until the election of the first civilian President, Brazilian feminism grew as a social movement not only in terms of the number of groups organized to improve conditions for women, but as a new political culture that has pointed to non-authoritarian ways of exercising power.

Until 1979 no political party incorporated women's demands into its programs and women were forced to operate outside institutional channels. They focused on discrimination against women in the labor market, the absence of day care centers for women workers, the sexual stereotypes which lead to gender discrimination in education, the crucial questions of violence against women and reproductive health care. A feminist press was initiated and labor unions and professional associations incorporated these issues in their discussions.

By the early 1980s, women's issues had become part of the public debate.More progressive political parties began to incorporate women's demands. There was yet no real link between feminists and environmentalists.

Redemocratization led to the establishment of Councils for Women's Rights, at the Federal, State and Municipal levels, to help implement demands from feminist groups for policies to fight violence against women, job discrimination, and in favor of day care. In 1985 the National Council for Women's Rights was established. The Councils, along with women's nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), participated in the formation of the new constitution during 1987-1988, and were successful in incorporating many provisions on social benefits, labor rights and reproductive health. Most of these, however, have yet to be made into specific laws.

In the late 1980s the National Council was disbanded because of opposition and budget cuts. Women's NGOs remain active.

Women and the Environment

Analyzing the activities related to the environment of 35 women's NGOS in Brazil, most of the activities center on sensitizing women to seeing the environment as a citizen right and at understanding the link between poverty, environment and women. The other major concern of these NGOS involves reproductive health and new reproductive technologies.

Quality of life--access to proper sanitation and housing, the right to live in a health environment--is the link between women and the environment. While many women, especially poor women, have been the main agents in the struggle for a better quality of life, many of them do not perceive themselves as actors in the environmental field.

The frame of reference into initiatives on women and the environmental is very broad. It should leave room for the inclusion of specific questions related to female physiology, such as the relation between acid rain and abortion, of pollution and low weight of premature babies, of the work in certain pharmaceutical industries and its effects on menstrual cycles and fertility, of agrotoxics and birth defects. Issues of desertification, compulsive migration and its specific effects on women show that environmental degradation has both physical and social effects on women.

Population; Linking Women, Environment and Development

Brazilian women's NGOs today are focussing on the discussion of population and the environment as population growth has been take by many as the cause of environmental degradation. The policy implications of this thesis, particularly in a military regime, is an emphasis on population control rather than women's reproductive rights and health.

The dramatic decrease of birth rates in Brazil (the annual birth rate is down to 1.8 percent from 2.5 percent a decade ago) and the significant weight that sterilization has played in this decrease (some press reports say that half of all married women between 15 and 45 have been sterilized), have made the question of choice and the quality of care a crucial one. At the same time the fact that this decrease in population growth has not meant an increase in the quality of life indicates clearly that more complex analyses are needed, linking the prevailing development model to environmental degradation.

Supported by a strong international movement, Brazilian women have refused to surrender their right to make decisions about their own bodies to the rationale of population planners. Despite the differences among Brazilian women, they agree that high birth rates are not a cause of poverty but a consequence of it and that it is time to talk about the explosion of poverty, not population.

Government agencies have not yet incorporated gender as a variable to be taken into consideration in their programs. The Brazilian Institute of Environment (IBAMA) has two projects, however, which does: one looks at the working conditions of the ´marisqueiras', the women who dig molluscs. Carried out by the Nucleus of Women Studies of the University of Bahia (NEIM), it looks at both the protection of the mangroves and the creation of decent working conditions.

The other is related to the ´quebradeiras de Babacu' in Maranhao state. It focuses on women who earn their living by breaking coconuts, whose pits are used in food oil and soap industry. Farmers have been enclosing the babacus (areas where the coconuts grow). The women breakers have been persecuted and even killed, and the babacus ecosystems destroyed.

A new paradigm, referred to as ´eco-feminism'--has emerged that women's association with nature is a wealth, not a handicap. The proximity of women and nature is part of a process of reevaluation of the South and of a criticism of the ´civilizing' process of the North which has generated destruction if nature and of human beings and created societies of overconsumption, responsible for the pollution of their own environment and of developing countries.

Eco-feminism then emerges as an ethical claim against an immoral pattern of development.

Excerpted with permission from INSTRAW News, the magazine of the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW--No. 19, 1993). INSTRAW is an autonomous UN body which conducts research, training and information activities to integrate women in development.